The lessons from Potter mania

15th September 2000 at 01:00
Denyse Presley reports on how one publisher is using innovative methods to encourage reluctant teenage readers.

Barrington Stoke's new teenage fiction list makes reluctant reader syndrome a fact of fiction Pottermania has created a buzz about reading, and Barrington Stoke chairman and expert on children's reading habits, Patience Thomson, recites the mantra on everyone's lips: "They are gripping stories."

Barrington Stoke placed the edge-of-the-seat factor at its core when commissioning the six titles in its newly-launched 13-16s fiction list.

The Edinburgh-based publisher went to press in May 1998 with a central philosophy to satisfy the demands of youngsters who are lagging behind their peers in the reading stakes. Co-founder Lucy Juckes says: "Children get bored with endless readers or feel a prat reading some dumbed down version of a classic. We want them to love books."

Ms Juckes spells out how children with reading difficulties won't settle for second best: "Thirteen-to-16s want to read stories by leading authors, so top writers like Bernard Ashley were given free rein to write a 7,000 word story. The kids were given the manuscripts and scribbled down their problems, discussing them later with the author."

With children as consultants, the Barrington Stoke team discovered some ostensibly trivial factors that can make or break so-called reluctant readers: "Black and white can be like strobe lighting so we use cream paper instead," says Ms Juckes.

Patience Thomson says their research is also uncovering a different learning style. "Children who have reading problems often have a strong visual sense. That's why you often find dyslexia among architects and engineers.

"Dyslexics and dyspraxics are not good at inference, so a character referred to by three different forms of address - Mr Brown, Dad, Stewart - might be confusing for them."

She continues: "We removed problematic words - like adverbs which they cannot visualise - and left the interest-rich words. They ca then focus on building memory and sequencing skills."

Barrington Stoke was anxious about sending out manuscripts in case the children formed divergent assessments. In fact, they came to a complete consensus. Some grammatical constructions proved difficult. "It was the way Joe had known it would be" was changed to: "Joe had known it was going to be like this."

On receiving the annotated texts, the authors wondered why a word - acceptable further down the story - was heavily underlined at the start. Patience Thomson worked it out: "It's like learning to drive a car, you confused the gear and brake when you got flustered. If you can use a clear typeface and so on, then they become more confident."

Dyslexics focusing on the art of reading do not predict what is coming next, so they can stumble across a word they cannot visualise and screech to a halt.

Low concentration skills are also a bugbear. Patience Thomson says:

"Because the children treat the stories as a film script, JK Rowling and Roald Dahl books, which are full of vivid characters and page-turning plots, are successful."

Adult Harry Potter readers have exploded the age-banding myth. Patience thinks youngsters will treat their fiction as a springboard: "From here, they can move on to John Grisham, Patrick O'Brian or whoever they like."

Children's book buyer for Waterstone's in Edinburgh, Angie Simpson, says:

"Teenagers don't want to hunt in the children's department, so we keep their books separate and titles from our general fiction list are also recommended." Ottaker's in Glasgow sites young adult fiction beside the science fiction.

They receive news about author events where they can meet and chat to authors, who this year have included Louise Rennison and Jonathan Meres.

Books which touch teenagers' own experiences are treasured. One boy wrote to Barrington Stoke about a particular character: "He feels just like I feel. I could never tell anyone before. Now I can talk about this guy."

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